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Harry Potter and The Moral Authority Question

Last week, my first installment in a sort-of-series about the Harry Potter novels — the first three, anyway — garnered less criticism than I might have expected for J.K. Rowling’s stories about youngsters who use magic and “witchcraft.” Instead, most […]
| Jan 31, 2007 | No comments |

Last week, my first installment in a sort-of-series about the Harry Potter novels — the first three, anyway — garnered less criticism than I might have expected for J.K. Rowling’s stories about youngsters who use magic and “witchcraft.”

Instead, most of the interaction concerned Potter’s protagonists’ non-magical, ethical behaviors, especially when they happen to break the rules at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

Clearly the first common criticism of the series regards its magic elements. But the critics’ second “howler” — in Potter-world, that’s an angrily written letter from parents that actually screams at young wizards — posits something like this: Harry and his friends often sneak out at night, disobey their professors and break school rules during their adventures. What kind of moral example does this set for the kids?

Relative to Biblical morality

In the first place, I’m not entirely convinced that kids should be reading Harry Potter in the first place. Though I’m not yet a parent, I’m quite familiar with small children and their levels of moral discernment — and comprehension of the fantasy/reality boundaries. And lots of media offerings, not only Potter but even intense action films such as Lord of the Rings, are too much for kids.

Biblical worldview or not, some stories contain elements that will confuse children’s perceptions of either reality or morality. The frightening scenes from Lord of the Rings would have kept me up nights if I had first seen them at a younger age; now I can “handle” them easily.

But for some Christians, particularly those without strong spiritual leadership at home and church, will be affected more easily by stories with bad worldviews. Their perceptions of morality will be altered. Thus, if I were a parent, I would not let my children read Harry Potter — if at all — until they’re old enough to discern right from wrong actions in any story anyway.

Meanwhile, I contend that stories such as Star Wars can actually be more subtly dangerous from a worldview perspective. After all, Star Wars presents a world with a very magical, occult-mystic Force; just because they don’t call it magic or witchcraft doesn’t make it any less so. The Force has a Light Side and a Dark Side; its power is morally neutral, like a law of nature.

This isn’t a Biblical worldview at all, yet somehow Christians haven’t boycotted those movies nearly as much as they do Harry Potter.

And of course there’s that infamous line in Return of the Sith, in which Obi-Wan informs Anakin that “only a Sith deals in absolutes.” (We can presume he meant that as an absolute statement.)

A similar statement is uttered by one Hogwarts professor in the climax of the first book: “There is no good and evil, there is only power, and those too weak to seek it.” But the only difference between this moral relativism and that of a noble Jedi knight is that in this case, the professor is a villain.

Meanwhile in Pottersville, Hagrid, undervalued gamekeeper at Hogwarts and one of Harry’s best friends, sternly informs Harry that “not all wizards are good.” By default, though, most are good — at least at first.

Hogwarts heroes

Meanwhile, despite the disobediences of Harry, Hermione, Ron and others, Rowling is clear that the Hogwarts professors, save some exceptions (a few villains, buffoons and oddballs, as with any real-life college) are upheld as strong authority figures.

Professors Lupin, McGonagall and Dumbledore are given high respect at the school. If Harry and Co. sneak around after hours — yes, often intentionally — the professors mete out judgment. The youths don’t want to cross them, and they never do so just for juvenile kicks.

While we might still question if the moral end justifies the means, Potter’s protagonists haven’t yet disobeyed just for the sake of disobeying. For example, Harry and Ron Weasley don’t use an enchanted Muggle (non-magical) car to fly into Hogwarts because they want a joyride. On the contrary, they were “locked out” of the magical train station and need to find some way to get to school — and when they arrived, they were petrified of the consequences, but reluctantly accepted their punishments.

Though Hogwarts’ good professors do uphold the rules, they also show mercy and compassion to their students. This further earns the students’ respect, and in return, they often succeed. In the second novel, for example, Harry’s loyalty to Prof. Dumbledore, Hogwarts’ headmaster, brings Harry desperately needed help from the senior wizard during a final confrontation with an evil, snakelike monster.

Harry and human nature

Much discussion that followed my first installment regarded the question about whether youths, or people altogether, are naturally good or evil.

My view of orthodox Christian theology claims “evil,” easily, based on multiple Scriptures. Therefore, any story in which characters are presented the choice between good and evil, and choose goodness, without the divine influence of Christ, is questionable — at least according to some sectors of Christian theology.

However, if we’re to start stressing the doctrine of Total Depravity now, we need to start weeding out most Christian novels as well.

Christianity, of course, is based on Grace, and that is the only way to redemption from human rebellion. Thus, even stories that involve morality and God but don’t present Grace will not be fully Christian. However, at this point, stories with worldviews based at least upon the Law — good and evil, right and wrong — will suffice nicely.

They’re certainly a whole lot better, anyway, than any of that postmodernist, relativist junk they throw at us in literature classes, in which all of the characters are nasty and most often die at the end.

Question the magical elements, if you will — I will, likely in the next column installment — but at this point it’s clear that J.K. Rowling is at the very least, not postmodernist. Absolute morality, and good and evil as opposites, do exist in Harry Potter’s world. And while disobediences do occur, they are either punished, or else fall under something like the “just war” theory.

After all, if the evil Lord Voldemort was out to destroy your school and kill everybody, wouldn’t you sneak out at night under your Invisibility Cloak if you had to?

E. Stephen Burnett is coauthor (with Ted Turnau and Jared Moore) of The Pop Culture Parent: Helping Kids Engage Their World for Christ, which will release in spring 2020 from New Growth Press. He also explores biblical truth and fantastic stories as editor in chief of Lorehaven Magazine and writer at Speculative Faith. He has also written for Christianity Today and Christ and Pop Culture. He and his wife, Lacy, live in the Austin area and serve as members of Southern Hills Baptist Church.

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